By Oren Segal and Mark Pitcavage
Directors of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism
Terrorism is sometimes referred to as the “faceless enemy,” but it has hardly been faceless in the United States this summer. Too many people have emerged from the shadows to inflict death and suffering.
The parade of violence has seemed unending, from Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, who attacked police officers providing security for the so-called “Muhammad Art Exhibit” in Texas in May, to John Houser, the Hitler-admiring man obsessed with the moral decay of America who recently opened fire at a Louisiana movie theater showing the movie Trainwreck.
Of the various killers and would-be killers this summer, two stand out. The first is Dylann Storm Roof, the white supremacist who allegedly confessed to the June massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine African-Americans dead.
The second is Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who in July engaged in a shooting spree targeting a Chattanooga military recruiting center and a nearby naval reserve center. Abdulazeez, who may have been inspired by radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed five people—all military personnel—before being killed by police.
In many ways, Roof and Abdulazeez personify America’s terrorist threat; they are the faces of the “faceless enemy.” Most obviously, each represents a major source of terrorism. Roof was a white supremacist who allegedly hoped to start a “race war” in which whites would prevail. White supremacists have for decades been the most prolific source of domestic extremist-related lethal violence. Along with the other main segment of the extreme right, anti-government militia groups and sovereign citizens, they are responsible for the great majority of extremist-related deaths in the U.S.
Abdulazeez, on whom there is less information regarding motivation, may well have latched onto the ideas of al-Awlaki—including his encouragement of attacks on military targets—as a way to atone for some of his personal demons, including drugs and alcohol. Domestic Islamic extremists have in recent years attempted or conducted a large number of terrorist plots, conspiracies and acts, despite being fewer in number than right-wing extremists.
Both men also chose targets typical of their movements. For Abdulazeez, it was the military; here he followed in the footsteps of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who killed a soldier at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009, and Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, that same year. Other Islamic extremists have also recently plotted attacks against military targets in the U.S., though without success.
Roof went on a shooting rampage against African-Americans. Sprees of violence against racial, ethnic, or religious minorities are a common type of white supremacist terrorism. In recent years, there have been a number of such episodes, including Frazier Glenn Miller’s attacks on Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2014; Wade Michael Page’s rampage at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012, and Keith Luke’s attacks on African immigrants in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 2009.
Both Roof and Abdulazeez used firearms for their attacks, which is also typical of American terrorism. Although the public usually thinks of terrorism in terms of bombs, terrorists like Ted Kaczynski and the Boston Marathon bombers are rare in America. The vast majority of extremist-related murders involve guns—easy to acquire, simple to use, and deadly. This is why Charleston and Chattanooga number among the 10 deadliest extremist-related attacks of the past 50 years. Indeed, with the exception of the Oklahoma City bombing, the “top 10” attacks all involved firearms.
Abdulazeez and Roof were both young men, disaffected, facing personal stresses of different kinds (Abdulazeez also suffered from mental illness). Although terrorism knows no age limits—Nidal Hasan was 39 at the time of his Fort Hood rampage, while white supremacist James Von Brunn, who attacked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, was in his late 80s—many of the attacks and plots in recent years by both Islamic and right-wing extremists have been committed by men in their mid-20s or younger.
Like Abdulazeez and Roof, a number of these extremists committed their attacks as lone wolves, unattached to any particular group. Overall, the number of lethal lone wolf attacks in the past two decades has been fairly low, numbering only a few dozen, but in recent years, lone wolves seem to have been emerging at a faster rate. One reason may be the increasing role played by the Internet in facilitating self-radicalization. It was through the Internet that Roof educated himself in white supremacy; it was via the Internet that Abdulazeez downloaded recordings of al-Awlaki.
Here one can see a significant difference between right-wing extremists and domestic Islamic radicals. While they can both easily immerse themselves in a sea of on-line propaganda designed to instill and reinforce extreme views, right-wing extremist Internet sources are primarily based in the United States and, therefore, must watch what they say. White supremacists who openly use the Internet to encourage violence and terrorism open themselves up to criminal investigation and, if violence occurs, possible civil liability; as a result, their encouragement of violence is often more implicit than explicit.
Domestic Islamic extremists, in contrast, receive most of their radicalizing messages from abroad, from terrorist groups and like-minded supporters who are freer to use the Internet to call for violence and terrorism within the U.S. Propaganda from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was an inspiration for the Boston Marathon bombing. In the past two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken such tactics to a new level altogether, employing a virtual army of on-line recruiters who use social media platforms to reach and radicalize susceptible individuals across the globe. Seeking to instill a deep sense of community and purpose, ISIS supporters encourage Americans to come to the Middle East to help it fight its wars—many of the 80+ U.S. residents linked to Islamic extremist activity since 2014 have made such attempts. But ISIS also urges people to launch attacks in the U.S.
Roof and Abdulazeez were both cold-blooded killers. Their attacks deeply affected the citizens of Charleston and Chattanooga and, indeed, the whole country, though not always in the same ways. In particular, the Chattanooga shootings, like some similar attacks before them, stirred anti-Muslim sentiments directed at America’s entire Muslim community, a disturbing phenomenon for which there is no parallel with regard to white supremacist attacks.
But their attacks were similar in that they were both essentially futile, able to achieve little but death and misery. Indeed, the reactions to the attacks illustrate just how ineffective they actually were. The Chattanooga attack, for example, inspired an outpouring of support for the U.S. military. The Charleston response was even more powerful. Far from starting a “race war,” Roof’s slaughter not only brought Charlestonians of all races together but also resulted in a bipartisan effort to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol.
American extremists, of whatever stripe, can hurt and even kill, but the one thing they can’t do is win.
Mr. Segal is an authority on Islamic extremism and terrorism in the United States; Dr. Pitcavage is an expert on right-wing extremism and terrorism in the United States.